Friday, January 27, 2006

Xmas, that Xian Holy-day

I regularly read Language Log, a blog about (you guessed it) language, written by real linguistics and not just misinformation-spreading pop-culture grammarians. (Bitter? Me? Nah.) I finally decided to explore the 114 links Language Log has to other language-related blogs.

And already, I'm glad I did. The very first link was to Abecedaria, a blog about "keyboarding in diverse scripts, literacy and digital literacy, and random quotes selected from the history of writing system theory." Right up my alley. In reading its archives, I came across an interesting discussion of the history of "Xmas," quoted in part below:

The use of the Greek letter chi for Christ has a long history. The first shorthand for Christ seems to have been ΧΡΣ (P46). This site explains that the Nomina Sacra were used not as abbreviations but to set apart holy words in text.

Two kinds of shorthand were used from the third century up until the 16th century in Greek manuscripts. First, the nomina sacra, where a closed set of frequently occuring siginificant names were abbreviated to create a logographic entity. Second, there were ligatures which shortened or combined two or three letters, especially grammatical endings, later even including the accent in the ligature.

Χριστος has been represented by Χρς, or Χς, and by ΧΡ in art and other representation.... The transition from Χς to Χ [presumably] happened with the beginning of the use of the vernacular languages in Europe, when the [grammatical] ending was no longer relevant. There would be no reason to retain the last letter and X alone came to represent Christ. There is also no reason to see a sign of disrespect in the transition from Χς to Χ. And so Xmas first appeared in English texts in the 16th century.

Following a link from the Abedecedarian post above, I read Raymond L. Cox's article, "Is God Against Christmas." Part of said article discusses the history of "Xmas" as well:

"But the use of the abbreviation Xmas takes Christ out of Christmas!" opponents allege. "Xmas is an irreverent modern substitute for Christmas. The abbreviation represents the substitution of X (which means the unknown quantity) for Christ."

Most Christians today would nod in agreement with those charges. And certainly some who use the abbreviation may employ it for such purposes. Neither is it my intention to whitewash the use of Xmas. But in all fairness and honesty we must recognize that the abbreviation did not originate either to take Christ out of Christmas or as an "irreverent modern substitute for Christmas."

Xmas is not of modern coinage. The Oxford English Dictionary documents the use of this abbreviation back to 1551. Undoubtedly it was employed before that. Now 1551 is fifty years before the first English colonists came to America and sixty years earlier than the completion of the King James Version of the Bible! Moreover, at the same time, Xian and Xianity were in frequent use as abbreviations of Christian and Christianity.

[snip discussion of Greek Χ, discussed above] Were they trying to take Christ away and substitute an unknown quantity? The idea is preposterous.

I find it amusing, then, that those who complain that "'Xmas' takes the Christ out of Christmas" don't know that, etymologically speaking, Christ has been right there all along.

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